John Finley – Huntsburg’s ‘Man of Mystery’

How many of you remember the old 1980’s sitcom, “The Golden Girls”? The elderly character on the show, Sophia, was always telling stories of her homeland that began like this: “Picture it—Sicily, 1922…..”

Hopefully Sophia won’t mind if I borrow that line for a look into my homeland’s rich and sometimes obscure history…..

The First Settlers

Picture it—Huntsburg, 1807. Only it wasn’t Huntsburg just yet. This was a thickly-wooded wilderness, and one of two large tracts of land purchased by Ebenezer Hunt and Colonel John Breck (Ever hear of Brecksville? They owned that too. Any ideas where the town names originated?).

Huntsburg Ohio
These few rocks, located in a grove of trees close to the present-day intersection of Pioneer and Clay streets, mark the location of the hut of John Finley

In the distance, to the south, there was a commotion. A man by the name of Stephen Pomeroy was bringing a huge maple crashing to the ground with his trusty axe. The day prior, Isaac Thompson, the founder of Middlefield, led Pomeroy to the land he had just purchased from Mr. Hunt. Stephen was to be the first person to settle here and likely spent some time basking in the fact that his family name would go down in history.

Can you imagine the surprise when he discovered he already had a neighbor?

Almost a mile and a half north, along the same stream by which Pomeroy was erecting his cabin, stood a small three-sided abode, referred to by some as a hut. Here lived a man who has become one of the better-known early American characters of which very little is actually known. And he is certainly Huntsburg’s most famous and mysterious resident. His name was John Finley.

From local accounts, John was a bit of an introvert who did not do much socializing with the early arrivers, other than to read at regular church services. He lived off wild game, potatoes, and rice. He was also deathly afraid of thunderstorms.

Finley was an odd fellow, for certain.  Yet, through the recollections of Huntsburg’s first residents, we find that this solitary soul’s reputation stretches well beyond the township limits.

A Famous Friend

Several mentions are made by those who knew of him that he fought in the Revolutionary War under the revered General ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne. The same stories point to the fact that Finley had a most-famous friend.

As we move to a broader view of national history, we find that our beloved hermit is cited as being close friends with—get this–Daniel Boone! As it turns out, the two apparently met while both were serving under Wayne in the Revolution (though one source mentions them meeting while fighting Native Americans earlier under Braddock), and remained close friends after the war. During this period, Finley filled young Daniel’s mind with romantic and adventurous stories of his hunting expeditions west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Daniel-Boone

It was not long before Boone felt the need to settle down. He was married, and settled into a crude home in the North Carolina back country. John Finley continued to explore the western wilderness for profit and pleasure.

With his friend’s stories still fresh on his mind, Boone once organized an expedition. They did not make it far before their ideas of adventure were dashed by a harsh winter. They turned and headed for home.

Nearly thirteen years later, a travelling salesman offering general wares out of his wagon, visited the Boone household. It turned out to be none other than…….John Finley.

Fact or Far Fetched?

Does the story seem a little far-fetched? Just wait—it gets better!

It was getting late in the year, and Daniel insisted that his friend John stay with his family that winter. Finley again told of all the hunts he had been on in far-off lands to the west. Boone grew especially obsessed by a territory Finley had visited, doing good trading with Native Americans.

In the spring, they organized a small hunting party and made out for the land the natives called “Ken-tuck-ay.”

Yes, you read that right. This old loner, living alone in a hut in Huntsburg, Ohio, was the same gentlemen that led his good friend DANIEL BOONE into the land he became known for—KENTUCKY.

And this is where the real mystery of John Finley begins.

First, how in the world did he end up in Huntsburg? There is record of his leaving Boone, allegedly to see relatives in Pennsylvania, midway through their second trip into the wilderness. But how did he get here? Why was he here? And the inquiry can even be made—was HE here?

As one begins to look a little further into John Finley’s thoroughly-undocumented life, we find that he may have had a family, and that one of his son’s names was, naturally, John. One account shows John Jr. actually separated from his wife in Indiana, and was known to roam just like his dad. However, ‘Junior’ would apparently not have been old enough to be the one here. His divorce came later. Then again, by some other accounts, ‘Senior’ would have been approaching his eighties. Not many lived that long back then, especially in the wilderness. It is even said that he enlisted with early Huntsburgers in the War of 1812…..In his eighties? This would have been a highly unlikely feat.

Making the legend even murkier is a historical marker in Kentucky–on the supposed homestead of one John Finley, saying he served in the Kentucky state legislature.

Confused? You are not the only one!

The local books say he was here, and he was the Finley that was friends with Daniel Boone. Is it truth? Is it an elaborate lie concocted by a hermit? It is hard to suppose the pioneers spun this tale all by themselves, as they tended to be fairly pious citizens. The more we dig, the more questions arise.

When our fighting boys arrived back from the War of 1812, there were more settlers, and John grew restless, feeling crowded. Sometime around 1814, he disappeared, by one account, heading to Maryland.

So we have a famous citizen, who was close friends with one of the largest figures in American history, meeting while fighting under Anthony Wayne in the Revolutionary War…or was it with Braddock fighting the natives?  He left Daniel Boone as a longhunter, only to return as …a traveling salesman? He shows Boone to Kentucky, only to leave midway through their next trip for Pennsylvania….or was it? When he again surfaces in the annals of history, he is alone by the banks of a small creek in an Ohio wilderness about to be settled. At the same time he is alleged by other historians to be living on a 1,000-acre Kentucky farmstead? Then this supposed elderly man fights in a war? And almost as quickly as he re-appears, he disappears again, for good?

The Story Goes On…

It seems that the more we study, the less we know.  One national researcher apparently spent nearly forty years trying to figure out the real story of this character with little success. So continues the mystery behind the first non-native man known to have lived within the borders of Huntsburg.

Top that one, Sophia!

Next up, we will discuss the first waves of settlers to come to Huntsburg. Think you are pretty tough? I can guarantee this—you wouldn’t stand a chance against these folks!

Ty Pilarczyk
Author: Ty Pilarczyk

Ty is the president of the Huntsburg Historical Society, and has lived in Huntsburg most of his life. When he is not designing, installing, and maintaining landscapes for the family construction business, Ty enjoys vegetable gardening, restoring and collecting old pressure lanterns, and spending time with his family.